A Heinous And Remorseless Maritime Killer

I first learned of the following story in a long-forgotten book of maritime lore entitled Unsolved Mysteries of Sea and Shore.  Authored by Edward Snow, it was published in only one edition in 1963.  As it is a difficult volume to procure, it will be useful for me to retell the tale here in abbreviated form, so that readers can form their own conclusions on the purposes of an elusive and sinister figure named William Kellogg Thompson.

Snow states that much of his story’s detail was provided by one Captain Lawrence Dunn, a Boston harbormaster in the first half of the twentieth century.  I have not been able to locate any other account of this weird tale of maritime murder; but as Snow himself is a generally reliable source, I see no reason to doubt the outlines of his narrative.  It begins in September 1905.  A solitary traveler from England named William Kellogg Thompson arrived in Boston and rented a loft in the Old Salt House, which was located near the corner of State Street and Atlantic Avenue (the building has long since been torn down).  Thompson, who was in his early thirties, kept to himself, and residents of the area noted his quiet but polite demeanor.  But like many psychopathic criminals, this genial exterior masked an utterly heartless predatory instinct. 

Thompson’s neighbors soon became aware that he was building some sort of mechanical contrivance.  They could hear him late at night, tinkering and hammering away; but since he claimed he was an engineer, no one sought to probe more deeply into his activities.  This seems odd, since the early 20th century saw a significant amount of anarchist terror bombings.  One might have expected Thompson to come under police surveillance, but this never happened, probably because he had chosen lodgings in the run-down Long Warf area of the waterfront.

One night, a massive explosion ripped through the Old Salt House, spewing debris into the surrounding streets.  A police patrolman named Leslie hurried to the scene, ran up the building’s stairs, and forced open the door to Thompson’s room.  Thompson was bloodied and covered with plaster and glass fragments.  The room was filled with chemicals, bottles, pieces of metal, boxes, and other pieces of equipment.  He was apologetic and deferential, and explained that he had been working on an invention that would improve the electrical lighting aboard ships.  Officer Leslie accepted this dubious explanation, reprimanded Thompson, and then left the scene.  It had been a close call for Thompson, but he nevertheless found it prudent to leave the area the very next day, just in case the police decided to investigate further.  He hired a pushcart vendor to move all his equipment and materials out of the Old Salt House, and he was gone. 

Thompson then took up lodgings in a loft in South Boston, and resumed his nocturnal experiments.  Within a month, he took delivery of a four-foot square box containing a clockwork mechanism.  He then went to work in seclusion for two weeks.  By now it should have been clear to anyone who was paying attention that Thompson could only have been one thing:  a bomb maker.  Eventually his work was done, and Thompson arranged to have his large metal box shipped to an address in New York City.  It is incredible that no one reported his strange activities, but this appears to have been exactly the situation.  Thompson himself left Boston a few days later; he went first to New York, and then took a steamship across the Atlantic to Liverpool. 

In Liverpool, Thompson resumed his practice of finding lofts in obscure, impoverished neighborhoods near the waterfront.  He moved into a place owned by a landlord named McGinnis, and resumed his “experiments.”  His neighbors could hear grating of metal on metal, the whirring of clocks, and the twang of springs being released from tension; but, as in America, no one sought to inform the authorities.  Thompson was assumed to be just another eccentric traveler who valued his privacy.  But after a few weeks, a huge explosion destroyed Thompson’s loft.  As he had done in Boston, Thompson explained to his landlord that he was an inventor and an engineer; he apologized profusely for the inconvenience, and paid his landlord restitution for the damage.

Thompson was gone the next morning with all his personal effects.  He found a wretched cellar habitation in one of the city’s worst areas, and continued with his work.  Once his “invention” was complete, he hired two carts to take it to Southampton by train to be stored in a warehouse; he marked its contents as “fragile glass antiques.”  Thompson now reinvented himself as a wealthy cosmopolitan.  He moved into a good Southampton hotel under the assumed identity of an American named Norman Stevens Winslow of New York City.  His story was that he was an “art dealer” exploring Europe for new purchases.  To support his cover story, Thompson arranged for a few crates of alleged art to be moved conspicuously about and stored in his Southampton warehouse.   

“Mr. Winslow” then contacted an insurance company about providing coverage for his assorted crates that were stored in the Southampton warehouse.  The company sent a clerk to examine the parcels; but Thompson was able to rush the inspection along with such swiftness that the insurance clerk failed to discern the true purpose of the machine.  It was, in fact, a massive explosive device, expertly concealed as a lighting mechanism.  The clerk approved the insurance policy on Thompson’s boxes of alleged “art,” and the policy was for a very large sum. 

Thompson then sailed across the Channel to Bremerhaven in Germany.  He had his boxes temporarily stored in a waterfront warehouse, while making preparations to ship all his goods to New York City aboard the ship Mosel.  Thompson intended to supervise the loading of his boxes aboard the Mosel, and then leave for America in a different vessel.  But the day of loading was an extremely cold one; and in the process of stowing Thompson’s boxes aboard the Mosel, one of the crates was dropped.  The result was an immense explosion that tore through the ship, killing many and scattering ejecta all over the docks.  A hunt was commenced for the owner of the boxes, and “Mr. Winslow” was soon located; he had attempted suicide and was in the final stages of life. 

A police investigation revealed that Thompson had had ties to a clockmaker named Michaels in the Saxony-Anhalt city of Bernburg.  Gradually the outlines of Thompson’s scheme were formed.  He had hired Michaels several times to construct timing mechanisms for him—without, of course, revealing the precise purpose for which they were intended.  Thompson’s cover as an “art dealer” allowed him to insure seaborne packages for very large sums.  His bombs were set to explode when the ships were well underway; the vessels would go to the bottom, taking with them all evidence of his crimes, along with numerous human lives.  Thompson would then collect the insurance money. 

This theory, which Edward Snow advances, has powerful circumstantial evidence to support it.  Snow notes that six months after Thompson bought his first timing mechanism from Michaels, the vessel Ella, traveling from Liverpool to Hamburg, vanished at sea with twenty-two men aboard.  Thompson had had insured boxes of “artworks” aboard the Ella, and he collected handsomely from the insurance payout.  The same thing happened to the freighter Scorpio, which was bound for France; in both cases, there were boxes of insured artworks linked to Thompson aboard.  There are many strange aspects of the Thompson case that deserve fuller explanation. 

Why, for example, is no detailed account of this affair available?  How did Thompson elude the suspicion of police in the United States and Britain?  How did insurance investigators fail to notice the suspicious nature of Thompson’s claims of losses? The available information suggests that Thompson must rank as one of the most fiendish of maritime criminals.  His motives were not political or ideological; they were coldly financial.  If money was his goal, as appears to be the case, then one can scarcely grasp the evil of a personality willing to sacrifice dozens of lives to attain it.      

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Read more in the complete collection of essays, Digest:

                   

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